With the right attitude and expectations, the French café is one of the best experiences you can ever have. I’d go so far as to say a trip to Paris without spending a considerable amount of time in a café is not a good trip to Paris.
But without an understanding of what you are getting into, café visits can lead to a huge amount of frustration. French cafes move at a much different pace than what you might be used to in the United States. It takes considerably longer. The service is different. It is confusing if you haven’t done it before.
So let’s dive into what to expect so that you can enjoy this aspect of French culture. With a proper understanding, you will learn to love this aspect of Paris life.
Waiting to Order
The first source of frustration you are going to experience is that you will feel ignored once you are seated. It is likely you will be seated in the same fashion that you are used to at home, but after that . . . nothing. Five minutes may pass and you won’t see a waiter. Ten minutes may pass. Sometimes even longer. You will feel tempted to get up and leave. Why are they ignoring you?
Someone in your group will quip something to the effect of “since they don’t work off tips, they just don’t care here.” And there is probably something to that. But not as much as you think. There is something else at work as well.
When the server finally arrives, they will take your drink and your food order. It isn’t like in the United States where the server immediately shows up and takes your drink order first, then comes back later to take your food order. They take them both at the same time in France.
That’s part of the reason they are leaving you alone so long at the beginning of your visit to the café. They are giving you time to decide what you want to drink and eat. You are getting space to decide your entire meal.
At home, you would find it odd if the server was pestering you about what you wanted to eat the moment you sat down. You expect space for that. The same holds true in France. It is just that they take your drink and food orders together. So don’t expect to get a drink right away. It usually doesn’t work that way. Just relax and expect a bit of a delay in getting your café experience started.
Now that you know what to expect out of the gate, you’ll need to be ready to order when the server arrives. So you look at the menu and . . . it is in French! Oh no! You don’t speak French. (I don’t either.) And the menu is confusing, You can’t just figure it out. Here are some examples:
- The “menu” is not what we think of as the menu. What we think of as the menu is called the “carte” in France. The “menu” in France is a set price for multiple courses where you typically get an appetizer, main dish, and desert for a fixed price.
- An “entrée” is not what you think either. In France, this is an appetizer.
Fun fact: do you know what they call French Onion Soup in France? Answer: onion soup. (But they say it in French, of course: soupe a l’oinnon).
If you learn a few terms in French, it will make your café experience much better. Some words are basically the same as English (salade for salad) but some are different. Here are a few to get you started:
- Plats: Main Courses
- Entrees: Appetizers
- Viandes: Meats
- Boeuf: Beef
- Poisson: Fish
- Canard: Duck
- Poulet: Chicken
- Oeufs: Eggs
- Fromage: Cheese
- Dessert: Dessert
- Boissons: Drinks (chaudes for hot, froids for cold)
- Vins: Wines (Blancs for white, rouges for reds)
- Café: Coffee
And, good news: champagne is still just champagne. You’ll want to make liberal use of that term.
These are just some terms to get you started. If you are reading this because you are going on my tour, don’t forget we will have a special pre-tour presentation on French culture and key words to know in French.
After you order, the meal settles into what you would ordinarily expect. The server will come back with your drinks in short order. You will enjoy your drink for a while and then your food will show up. That part takes about the same time as what you would expect.
This is a good time to enjoy the café. Odds are you will be sitting outside, facing the street. Enjoy the people watching. Take in your surroundings. Revel in being in a French café.
Then you’ll get your food, and things get even better. The food in France is always great. I don’t know how it can possibly be that every meal I have ever had in France has been excellent, but it is a fact. Whether I am in a famous café, or some little place I ducked into to avoid the rain, the food is always outstanding. I have been told that because there are so many cafes in Paris, if the food isn’t great they are almost immediately out of business, but I don’t really know.
Getting the Check
Next comes another source of frustration for the unknowing traveler: paying the check.
In France (and many other countries), the server will not just bring your bill. That is considered presumptuous and rude. You will have to ask for it. If you just sit at your table waiting for your check, you might wait forever.
What’s worse, is that at this point in the meal the server will tend to avoid you in France. They allow you to enjoy your meal and are not typically in a hurry to clear your plates or otherwise engage with you. Very often you will have to wait a while to even see your server to ask for a check.
Just understand that this process can take a while. Ask for your bill when you see the server. Once you do, they usually show up with it.
Paying by credit card is a little different in France as well. Frankly it is different in most places than in the United States, where the server will take your credit card to the back of the house and run it there. I have heard from many Europeans that they find this weird and jarring. Why would we allow someone to disappear with our credit cards? The rest of the world handles this differently. The server will show up with a little credit card machine at your table. They will run it there.
The last step in the process is the tip. You are probably aware that tipping in France is not like in the United States.
The first question is whether you should tip at all. You certainly won’t leave the 15-20% you might be used to at home. French servers are paid better and not reliant on tips. They get salaries, vacations, health care, etc.
In addition, all French cafes will already include a 15% service charge on your bill. Usually this is signified by the words “service compris”. So you don’t have to leave anything at all.
If you ask your waiter if tip is included, they will say no. Technically, this is true. You are paying a service charge, not a tip. But you already paid 15% for service, so don’t be confused about that.
If you want to leave a tip, it is something smaller. It is something in the neighborhood of simply rounding up, leaving 5%, or leaving a few Euros. Anything beyond that is only done if you have a particularly friendly or efficient waiter. And you should not feel compelled to leave anything for mediocre service.
If you do want to leave a tip, it will need to be in cash. The credit card receipt will not have a blank for you to write in a tip amount.
Enjoying Paris Cafe Life
With these tips in mind, I hope you are better equipped to enjoy French café life. Knowing what to expect, and handling it in a relaxed, friendly way will make this one of the best experiences of your trip.
And it isn’t just a waste of time. You’ll be seeing how Parisiens live. This is how they spend their time. They aren’t spending every day in the Louvre. Or atop the Eiffel Tower. That is tourist stuff (nothing wrong with that, but it just isn’t something you would do every day). Rather, the people who live in Paris spend their time in cafes. If you want to see how the French live, this is where you want to be. And you need to eat anyway, so you might as well enjoy it.